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december books 2016 christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. How were your holidays? I hope they were lovely.

I spent the first part of my Christmas break sick in a hotel room (ugh), but did manage to squeeze in a lot of reading, both while I was sick and after I got well. So as we head into 2017, here’s the last reading roundup of 2016:

My (Not So) Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella
Katie Brenner is living her dream life in London – and trying to rise above the non-Instagrammable parts. When she’s let go, she heads home to Somerset to help her dad launch a glamping business. Everything is fine until her high-maintenance ex-boss, Demeter, shows up. Fluffy and fun with a few deeper insights. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

A Study in Scarlet Women
, Sherry Thomas
When Charlotte Holmes is caught in flagrante delicto with a married man, it’s the end of her reputation – but only the beginning of her career as Sherlock Holmes. This was a clever take on the Sherlock Holmes story, with a highly entertaining “Watson.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts is chock full of adventures – the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament – but the shadow of Lord Voldemort draws ever closer. I’m rereading these books in tandem with a friend this time around, and it is so much fun.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I reread this gentle Scottish novel every December. This year I lingered in it, sometimes reading only a few pages a day. I love this story of heartbreak, quiet hope, and the ways community saves us.

A Cast of Vultures, Judith Flanders
London book editor Sam Clair is juggling cranky colleagues, nosy consultants and an epic hangover – and that’s before she gets drawn into a mystery involving arson, missing neighbors and potential drug dealing. Witty and well plotted; better than its two predecessors. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 21).

The Left-Handed Fate, Kate Milford
Lucy Bluecrowne is utterly at home on her father’s privateering vessel, the titular Left-Handed Fate. But as the Fate sails the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, Lucy and her crew are drawn into intrigue with the French, the Americans and the mysterious citizens of Nagspeake. A great adventure story with a hint of magic. (I also loved Milford’s previous novel, Greenglass House.)

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading in this brand-new year?

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favorite books 2016 part 1

We are halfway through the year already, and I’m reading at my usual breakneck pace – nearly 130 books. I talk about what I’m reading in my semi-monthly roundups, but I wanted to share the best of my reading year (so far) with you.

Here are the books I have loved the most this year. (Not all of them were published in 2016, though about half of them were.)

Book That Best Embodies Its Title: Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett. She writes with such grace and (yes) wisdom about the Big Questions of what it means to be human, and draws many other voices into that conversation. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time. So many great, thought-provoking sentences.

Loveliest Quiet Novel: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. This gorgeously written novel follows the intertwined lives of two couples, the Morgans and the Langs, over several decades. Beautiful, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and wise. A book worth reading and rereading. (Recommended by Anne and others.)

Most Captivating Young Adult Adventure Story: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson. I loved every page of Leah Westfall’s journey from her Georgia homestead to the gold fields of California. She’s hiding a lot of secrets (including her ability to sense gold), but she is strong, compassionate and utterly human. I wrote about this book for Great New Books.

Most Sweeping, Heartbreaking, Absorbing Epic Novel: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Four words: my dad was right. I should have read this years ago, but I’m so glad I finally did. I fell head over heels for Augustus McCrae, Woodrow F. Call, and their band of cowboys and wanderers, making the journey from Texas to Montana. It’s long, but powerfully rendered in simple prose. So good.

Wisest Memoir on Faith, Seasons and Home: Roots and Sky by Christie Purifoy. I loved Christie’s honest, lyrical writing about making a home with her family in an old Pennsylvania farmhouse, and the struggles of staying put and building a worthwhile life. Luminous, clear-eyed and utterly lovely.

Freshest Take on Holmes & Watson: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro, which reimagines Holmes and Watson as 21st-century teenagers at a Connecticut boarding school. Charlotte Holmes is sharp, jagged and brilliant, and Jamie Watson is insightful and kind. (The dialogue is fantastic.)

Most Insightful Foodie Memoir: Stir by Jessica Fechtor, which recounts the author’s journey to recovery after a brain aneurysm, and how she found her everyday (and a lot of delicious, life-giving meals) in the kitchen. Warm, wry and beautifully written, with so many insightful lines on food, family and living well.

Most Brilliant Homage to a Classic: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye, whose orphaned protagonist loves Jane Eyre but is not nearly so meek as that other Jane. Whip-smart writing, some truly wonderful supporting characters and so many fantastic lines.

Best Combination of Recipe Inspiration and Food Haiku: My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl, which includes mouthwatering recipes, lyrical tweets and some plainspoken wisdom about a tough year in Reichl’s life.

Best Reread: Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos, which pulled me out of a serious reading slump. Beautifully written, deeply compassionate and so smart.

Best Book About Science and Life for Non-Scientists: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. A memoir about botany and building a life. Fascinating, sarcastic, lovely and wise.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are the best books you’ve read so far in 2016?

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bookstore lenox ma interior

“What do you like to read?”

I get this question a lot: when I tell someone about my book-reviewing gig for Shelf Awareness, or when someone sees the long book lists I keep here on the blog and at Goodreads. I also get it when a friend comes to my apartment for the first time and sees my bulging bookshelves. (Though in that case, it’s usually drowned out by, “Wow, that’s a lot of books.”)

Broadly, I love both fiction and nonfiction: novels, memoirs and biography, travel writing, mystery, poetry, middle-grade and young adult lit. But I’ve been thinking lately about a few sub-genres I adore.

These aren’t official classifications in most bookstores, but they share definite characteristics, and they are my literary catnip.

For starters, I love clever British mysteries – preferably with an engaging detective or two and not a lot of gore. Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie remain my favorites, but I also love Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, Carola Dunn, Charles Todd and Charles Finch. (All of these authors have created protagonists – some professional detectives, some amateur sleuths – whom I adore.) I am a longtime Anglophile, and there’s something about watching a mystery unfold in my beloved England – especially with plenty of tea and biscuits on hand.

Related: I enjoy the occasional dive into Sherlockiana. I haven’t read all the original Conan Doyle stories, but I have relished a few books and series that feature the great detective. My favorite Sherlock riff is Laurie R. King’s fantastic series about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, but I also enjoyed A Study in Charlotte (a 21st-century YA take on Holmes and Watson), Nancy Springer’s middle-grade series featuring Sherlock’s younger sister Enola, and The Great Detective, Zach Dundas’ fantastic nonfiction history of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. (Also, it’s not a book, but I can’t forget the BBC Sherlock.)

Continuing with the British theme: I love gentle interwar British fiction. Miss Read’s tales about the village of Fairacre fit this bill, as do D.E. Stevenson’s warmhearted novels of life in England and Scotland. These books are not dramatic or world-changing and that is precisely why I love them: they are stories of ordinary people living quiet, beautiful lives.

There isn’t an official name for this genre, but I love dual-narrative fiction that shifts back and forth in time, twining two different storylines together until they meet in the end. Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams both do this very well, but I’ve read other books that employ this technique to great effect. (Most recently: Maggie Leffler’s The Secrets of Flight; June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore; Natasha Solomons’ The Song of Hartgrove Hall.)

Like a lot of inveterate readers, I adore books on books. These include novels set in bookstores (Parnassus on Wheels, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore); books about the reading life (Ex Libris, Voracious, Howards End is on the Landing), and novels that feature books as a key plot point (The Word Exchange, The Bookman’s Tale). Jasper Fforde’s literary fantasy series featuring Thursday Next, book detective, is its own wildly quirky variation on this theme.

What are your favorite sub-genres? (And does anyone have a more elegant name for this phenomenon?)

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greenlight bookstore window brooklyn

It is officially spring, but there’s snow in the forecast – so, naturally, I have stocked up on books. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro
Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson (descendants of that Holmes and Watson) end up at the same posh Connecticut boarding school. When a student they both despise is murdered, they join forces to clear their names and solve the case. I love a good Sherlock riff (see also: Mary Russell), and this one crackles with great dialogue and entertaining details. Bought at Greenlight on our recent NYC trip.

The Kite Fighters, Linda Sue Park
I enjoyed this gentle tale of two brothers preparing for a kite-fighting competition in 15th-century Korea. For the Reading Together Family Exploration Book Club (which Moira is hosting this month).

What Works: Gender Equality By Design, Iris Bohnet
Bohnet teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I’ve been temping. Her book uses (lots of) research to explore ways to improve equality and neutralize biases through organizational design. The research gets dry at times, but there are some fascinating case studies. (Watch the video for a quick précis.)

Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys
The Wilhelm Gustloff sank in the Baltic Sea on Jan. 30, 1945, killing more than 9,000 soldiers and refugees. Sepetys brings this little-known tragedy to life through four young narrators: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a Prussian artist; Emilia, a pregnant Polish girl; and Alfred, a Nazi soldier. Vividly told and tensely compelling; I read it with my heart in my throat.

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, Addie Zierman
Desperate for some warmth and light during a frigid Minnesota winter, Addie loads her two preschoolers into their van and takes off for Florida. Along the way, she explores what it means to reach the end of your easy certainties and light-filled metaphors relating to God. Powerful, honest and beautifully written.

Celia’s House, D.E. Stevenson
This is the story of Dunnian, a family estate in Scotland where the Dunnes have always lived. A sweet, multi-generational family saga (which begins with one Celia Dunne and ends with another). I love Stevenson’s gentle novels.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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flavia de luce series books mysteries
It’s no secret around here that these are two of my favorite things.

A couple of months ago, I noted that the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series are “my Cadbury milk chocolate: smooth, sweet and delightfully English.” I still like that metaphor, and it got me thinking about how to classify my other favorite mystery series as different types of chocolate.

So, for your culinary/reading/book-nerd pleasure, a list:

  • Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are rich dark chocolate: smooth, layered and delightfully complex. (She weaves in history, politics, feminism, culture, mental health – so many subjects.)
  • Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series (narrated by Chet the dog) is a handful of M&Ms: colorful, addictive and so much fun.
  • The Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear remind me of a good chocolate caramel: rich, bittersweet and just slightly salty.
  • Tommy & Tuppence, Agatha Christie’s youthful detectives, are those Ghirardelli chocolate squares with mint inside – surprising and fun, and not too complex.
  • Miss Marple, that sweet elderly sleuth, and her cases are a truffle assortment – because there are always surprises inside.
  • Sherlock Holmes (in all his many iterations) is like an assortment from Burdicks, the gourmet chocolate shop in Harvard Square. These boxes always contain treats I’ve never heard of, made with exotic liqueurs – reminiscent of Holmes’ penchant for unusual cases with highly irregular details.
  • Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness mysteries are Hershey’s kisses: light, sweet and uncomplicated.
  • The Flavia de Luce series (pictured above) is a bar of wicked dark chocolate – since Flavia’s twin passions are for sleuthing and poison.

Any mysteries-as-chocolate you’d add to the list?

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strand books nyc exterior

 

I’ve read more than 200 (!) books this year, and it’s always a tough task to winnow down my favorites. But in the midst of the avalanche of year-end lists, I thought I’d share a handful. These are the gems that have sparkled most brightly in my reading year.

Not all these books were published in 2015 (though many of them were), but I read all of them (except Best Reread) for the first time this year.

Wisest Memoir: Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin. This lyrical, plainspoken memoir by a writer-turned-carpenter resonated deeply with me. I loved MacLaughlin’s descriptions of tools and construction materials (both as physical objects and as an extended metaphor for living), and her thoughtful account of building (and rebuilding) a worthwhile life.

Loveliest Novel on Life, Love and Aging: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Two elderly people begin spending their nights together, just talking. In spare, melancholy, evocative prose, Haruf eloquently explores the terrain of this new relationship. A wise, bittersweet and beautiful book.

Best YA Novel about Love, Grief and Poetry: Kissing in America by Margo Rabb. A refreshing twist on the typical boy-meets-girl YA plotline. This is a book about all kinds of love: friendship, love altered by grief, and the tight, complex bond between mothers and daughters. Funny, poignant, a little messy and deeply honest – like the best love stories.

Loveliest Travel Memoir: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. An evocative memoir of a season containing both chaos and light – with so many beautiful lines.

Favorite Reread: Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace. Emily is wise and kind, and I love watching her muster her wits.

Most Fabulously Geeky Word-Nerd Memoir: Between You & Me by Mary Norris. Grammatical advice, stylistic quirks and entertaining stories from a long career at The New Yorker.

Most Charming Middle-Grade Novel: Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick. Who can resist a literary mystery, a big quirky family and a bookstore dog named Miss Marple?

Most Comforting British Author: D.E. Stevenson. I have so loved spending time with her characters: Mrs. Tim, Miss Buncle, and the four Grace sisters.

Wittiest British Sleuth: Amory Ames, who stars in Ashley Weaver’s series that (so far) includes Murder at the Brightwell and Death Wears a Mask.

Catnip for Mystery Lovers: The Great Detective by Zach Dundas, a fantastic history of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. Also The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, an account of the Detection Club, which included such luminaries as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Frothy Chick Lit with a Soul: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. I loved this Will-and-Kate inspired romp (set in Oxford!). So fun and romantic, with surprising depth.

Favorite Bookish Podcasts: Books on the Nightstand and All the Books. I love hearing these literary, enthusiastic voices in my head each week. (To quote Liberty, who co-hosts All the Books, “It’s so good! It’s SO GOOD!”)

Last week, the team at Great New Books (of which I am a part) shared our Best Books of 2015. Hop over there to see our favorites – it’s a fantastic list.

What were your favorite books of 2015?

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strand books nyc exterior

We’re only nine days into November, but I’ve already read some cracking good books this month. (Hooray!) Here’s the latest roundup:

The Lake House, Kate Morton
In 1933, toddler Theo Edevane disappears from his family’s isolated country estate in Cornwall. His body is never found. Seventy years later, London detective Sadie Sparrow, reeling from a professional crisis, comes to the area on holiday and decides to reopen the cold case. Morton’s latest is full of lush descriptions, family secrets and hidden passions. A richly layered plot – I devoured it.

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, Nancy Springer
Springer’s second Enola Holmes mystery finds her protagonist living alone in London, dodging her brother Sherlock, helping the poor, and trying to solve a few cases. When a peer’s daughter goes missing, Enola investigates, with surprising results. Another fun middle-grade mystery.

The Stargazer’s Sister, Carrie Brown
The 18th-century astronomer William Herschel was justly famous for his pioneering work with telescopes and discovery of several celestial bodies. But his sister and longtime assistant, Caroline, was herself an accomplished astronomer. In this lyrical novelization of Caroline’s story, Brown explores the limits, sacrifices and rewards of love and dedication. Absolutely beautiful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 19).

Black Ship, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher and her family have moved into a new house near Hampstead Heath. But when a dead body turns up in the garden, Daisy and Alec get mixed up in another investigation. An engaging plot, combining the tricky business of British liquor sales during U.S. Prohibition with the delicate matter of interrogating one’s brand-new neighbors.

The Hours Count, Jillian Cantor
Before Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, they were simply a Jewish family living in New York. Cantor tells their story through a fictional neighbor, Millie Stein, who is struggling with her own troubled son and unhappy marriage, and is drawn into the Rosenbergs’ lives. Beautifully written and heartbreaking. I also loved Cantor’s previous novel, Margot.

Death on the Cherwell, Mavis Doriel Hay
The unpopular bursar of Persephone College, Oxford, is found dead in her canoe. Four spirited undergraduate ladies investigate. Oxford + mysteries + plucky heroines = my literary catnip. Well written and so much fun. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC.

Eat The City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York, Robin Shulman
New York City is known as a concrete jungle, but it has supported robust production of various food products – vegetables, meat, beer and wine – over the years. Shulman explores the city’s history through its food producers, past and present. Meticulously researched and fascinating. Found at the Strand on my solo trip to NYC.

The Way to Stay in Destiny, Augusta Scattergood
When Theo Thomas ends up in Destiny, Florida, with his taciturn uncle, he doesn’t plan on staying. But a baseball-crazy girl and a dance-studio piano might just save his summer – and help him find a new home. A sweet middle-grade novel about family, music and finding home. I also loved Scattergood’s previous novel, Glory Be.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

I’ll be linking up with Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

What are you reading?

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